Ovarian Cancer — the Silent Killer … or is it?

It is ovarian cancer awareness week — for my sisters and me at least. Our mother’s birthday was this past Sunday, March 1st. We should’ve woken that morning with a slight hangover and a happy afterglow from the successful 70th birthday party we threw her. She was a woman worth celebrating, and there is no doubt her 70th would have been an event.


My mom at 60, two years after her diagnosis.


Instead, I woke with an all too familiar pit in my stomach and ache in my chest. Seven and a half years later, the shock of her death can still bring me to my knees. Most days, I have a low-grade generalized feeling of loss, but every once in a while … Bam! I’m brought back to 2007, and the pain is present and acute. I’m brought back to the irrational and useless feelings of anger, bitterness and confusion.

Why her? She was active, thin, healthy and eternally happy. She never smoked, drank Pinot Grigio occasionally, but stopped when she “got that funny feeling”, and was never ill. She had four children — pregnancy is supposed to be protective. Her parents lived to 97 and 102. So why, at 58, an age that to me seems younger and younger each year, did she develop a tumor on her ovary? There’s no good explanation, which is something I must simply accept. As my mom, Madelyn, would say, “There are mothers with young children who are dying from this. This isn’t about what’s fair.”

Had it been discovered while still confined to her pelvis, she would’ve had a chance, a good chance. It was only after cancer cells travelled to her diaphragm and lungs, divided and grew into more tumors, did she experience some shortness of breath. This prompted a visit to a walk in clinic, assuming a diagnosis of pneumonia and hoping for an antibiotic to clear things up. She had a friend’s party to attend the next day. About 24 hours later, with a stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis, life, as we knew it, was over.

I wonder incessantly if she had been more of a complainer, more selfish, more egocentric, would she have noticed the subtle symptoms of her illness earlier? Would she have noticed them early enough to save her life?

What might my mother have been feeling? As a gender, we have a tendency to downplay our aches and pains, focusing on the needs of others and our families. How often do you hear a mom say, “I am too busy to get sick.” Fighting through a cold might be noble, but ignoring warning signs can be fatal.

– This year, it is estimated 21,290 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 14,180 women will die of the disease.

– Currently, there is no routine screening for ovarian cancer.*

– Symptoms include:
– bloating
– pelvic or abdominal pain
– difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
– urinary symptoms including urgency or frequency

Other symptoms, which are considered less specific, are fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities.

These may be vague, but they are still real symptoms. Is ovarian cancer the Silent Killer or is it the Ignored Killer? Ovarian cancer grows and spreads very quickly. Too often it is diagnosed in its later stages because we women overlook the signals our bodies are sending, or we try to tough it out. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms consistently, if you have a sixth sense something is not right, PLEASE talk to your doctor. It is a conversation which could save your life. Share this with the women you love!


* Since publishing this article, I’ve been asked if there are tests for ovarian cancer. The answer is yes. There is a blood test which looks at a marker called CA125, but it is not specific for ovarian cancer leading to a lot of false positives. A pelvic ultrasound (sonogram) will detect a tumor on the ovary, but it is not performed routinely at your GYN visits.



Memory Loss — When to Worry

memory lossI finished reading Still Alice by Lisa Genova the day before Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as a 50 year old Harvard professor faced with early-onset Alzheimer’s in the movie adaptation. It took me only a day and a half, with many interruptions, to pour through it cover to cover. I couldn’t put it down, and I loved it, in that way you can love something which makes you cringe.

Occasionally, I associate too much with a character in a novel, becoming empathetic to the point of near paralysis. I walked around in an amnesiac fog for 36 hours, but I’m better now. I think.

I do forget things frequently. I’m terrible with names. I lose my phone several times a day, every day. I briefly forget which kids are where, and who has to be picked up when. I can’t remember if I’ve been to a certain restaurant or if I like a certain wine. I blame these memory lapses on the business of life, a mom’s tendency to devote at least part of her brain to each of her children, and poor organization. (I do not blame it on the wine.)

When, though, do normal memory lapses and loss due to aging become a diagnosable disease?

Look for these warning signs:

1. You forget how to do something you have done many times before. Forgetting how to get to your best friend’s house, or struggling to remember how to make your favorite meal can be a tip off to a real problem.

2. You have trouble learning something new. Electronics, computers or card games used to come easy to you, and now, you can’t figure out how to start the new toaster. You used to be handy, and now, you can’t figure out how to put together one of your children or grandchildren’s Christmas presents.

3.  You repeat yourself in the same conversation. I think I do this a lot, but it is usually very late at night, and the person I am talking to is tuning me out.  It can be very frustrating to both the speaker and the listener as it is tempting to say, “Stop talking. You told me this already and if I have to hear about your work-out this routine one more time, someone is going to get hurt!!!”  I think I do this a lot, but it is usually very late at night, and the person I am talking to is probably tuning me out.

4.  You are having trouble making choices. You stare in the fridge trying to decide what to drink, or you stare at the closet with no idea what to wear. This may be a red flag if it is happening routinely.

5.  You can’t keep track of what happens in a day. If you are having an increasingly difficult time remembering if you showered, took out the garbage or went to the food store, you should discuss your concerns with your doctor.

I started each of these warning signs with “you”, but most often, if there is a true diagnosable problem, it will be a friend or family member who will notice first.  If someone else tells you that you are losing it — hopefully, they find a more sensitive way to say it — you should probably take it seriously.  If you have a loved one whose memory seems to be failing, bite the bullet and tell them you are worried.  There are many things that can cause memory loss in addition to dementia, some of which are correctable.  There are also treatments for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia that can help to halt the progression of the disease.  If you noticed someone was short of breath or was clutching at his or her chest, you would address it.   The brain is an organ just like the heart and lungs.  It needs to be taken care of.

Speaking of letting people know you are worried about them, I am offering $500 bucks to anyone who tips me off about my intervention.

Ash Wednesday: Baby Steps to Better Health

IMG_1041Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It is the day you see people with a dirty forehead and until you remember what day it is, or someone explains it to you, you want to tell them to look in the mirror. We Catholics believe this period before Easter Sunday is a time to reflect on our lives and focus on our faith. When I was a child, we were taught to give up something, be it cookies, soda or candy. As an adult many people give up alcohol — for me this would be more of a sacrifice for those who have to live with me. Junk food and coffee are common ones. I personally know someone who gave up mastarbation one year. This was harder on me … um, I mean his wife, than it was on him. I have a cousin who gave up Lays potato chips every year, not any other kind, just Lays, because they were his favorite. He was probably missing the point, but maybe we all are. Sacrifice often leads to bitterness, envy and cravings. The real goal should be to use this time to make positive changes, ones which can lead to an improved mind, body and spirituality. Just like New Year’s Resolutions, goals are easy to set but hard to fulfill. Don’t take on too much. Try these five simple ways to make changes which seem small, but which may improve your mental and physical health.

1 — Each night, write down 2-3 things you are grateful for. Keep the list next to your bed and read it before closing your eyes. Grateful people are both happier and healthier.

2– Add two servings of vegetables or fruit to your day. The fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals will give your body a boost and you will naturally have less appetite for high calorie processed foods. Zucchini, cucumber, carrots are great to eat raw, and like apples and pears, will last a while. Stock up and keep them on hand.

3 — Stretch. Yoga is a great form of exercise, but for now, just stretch for 2 minutes when you wake in the morning. It will improve your mood, get your blood flowing and reduce the risk of injury — especially on these cold days.

4 — Don’t look at your phone or any other screen at least a half an hour before bed. You will fall asleep faster and sleep better. Try to work up to an hour, which is better, but for now, baby steps.

5 — Drink more water. Have a glass before any other beverage or snack. This will improve your energy and your immune system, benefit your digestive system and curb your appetite.

Additive is better than restrictive. Add these simple things to your day to day, and good health and better choices are bound to follow.

Tiger Mom has Nothing on Soccer Mom

As usual, when my family headed into another calendar year, we reflected on the days past and resolved to make positive changes in the future. I asked each of my kids to spend some time thinking about 2014, so they could set some realistic goals for 2015. My two oldest daughters both said they want to learn to play guitar. My middle child wants to learn how to do a back hand spring, and the jury is still out on the boys. I’m guessing, at five years old, their goal would have something to do with becoming the strongest man in the world or learning how to fly.

I would love one of my children to play an instrument. Having been cursed with tone deafness, and also, cruelly, a love of music, hearing a melody created at the hands of one of my children would be a joy. Outwardly, I encourage the ambition, but I am doubtful they will ever achieve it. I don’t believe they are genetically limited, their father can carry a pleasant tune, I just don’t know how they will find the time. Sports, which for years has been a huge part of their lives, is taking up more and more of their time. No longer is it enough to play in a recreation league, if they want to play “competitively”, they have to be on at least one travel team, sometimes two for the same sport. We are led to believe if they have any hope of playing in high school — not college mind you, we all know that’s not in their cards — they need to put in a lot of time, attend extra clinics and generally live, eat and breathe the sport.

When the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was released, many people in suburbia were quick criticize Amy Chua for the pressure she puts on her kids and the emphasis she puts on scholastics and musical achievement. All the while, many of us are hypocritically substituting homework, social and family time for athletics. We fork over what amounts in a year to thousands of dollars, for the privilege of our children being on “elite” teams. The owners of these elite teams continue to add more and more players (amazing how many talented players there are), because after all, it is booming business with no recession in sight.

Write us a check, and we will make your child a superstar. Don’t write the check, and they are destined to wallow forever in the land of athletic mediocrity, heaven forbid. We follow small athletes around to far away fields like aging groupies. With five children, I can’t get to every game. I’ve stopped trying because the hectic, busy nature of the weekends was starting to take a toll, but the guilt knowing almost every other kid has a parent on the sidelines, takes a different kind of toll. Seems I can’t win.

My children are over scheduled. Luckily, they are good students, and I try to make sure school is the priority. I know academics will get them a lot further in life than the ability to kick a ball. Yet, if they had a ton of studying to do and a game that same night, I know 9 times out of 10, I would make them go to the game. I tell myself it is teaching them time management and the importance of living up to your commitments, but perhaps I am also worried the coach will be mad, or they will miss an opportunity the other kids are getting. I’m wholly and sadly aware of my problem, and I struggle with a solution. I even struggle with mustering the energy to look for a solution. All this carpooling, after all, is exhausting.

I hear parents define themselves by the sport their kids play. “We are a hockey family.” “I’m a soccer mom.” It’s a strange phenomenon, one that I am sure psychologists can boil down to fear, feelings of inadequacy, parental competitiveness and vicarious living. I hear parents, with a none too obvious hint of pride, talk about how busy they are and how they have no time for themselves because of all the sports their kids play.

How did it come to this? We are a society absurdly awed by and envious of athletic ability in kids. We give up everything from an adult social life to our sanity to watch children play. It is bordering on a sickness in some, and the kids will ultimately pay the price for being their parents’ primary source of entertainment and pride. In addition to being pathetic, it is just too much pressure. I like watching my kids play, but I don’t think being at every game makes you a better parent. Standing at a distance from someone while shouting at them, is never going to improve a relationship.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. I wish I did. I do know my youngest children will benefit from their sisters’ experiences. I am determined to give them a broader viewpoint, complete with music and art appreciation, and exposure to greater knowledge. I want to be a mother who fuels their curiosity and helps to answer their questions. I don’t want to just be a chauffeur and a cheerleader. I will support them if they want to try new sports, but I will never use the excuse, “they just love it” as a reason to sign them up for every clinic and team available. After all, they “just love” chocolate, but I don’t let them eat it day and night. I am going to de-emphasize sports and emphasize friends, kindness, school and life experiences.

That’s what I am saying today. I know things can change, and I can again be sucked into the wide, wacky world of kids’ sports. As an older mom, I’ve learned to never say never. But for now, for today, my goals are noble. My young kids need me to make a life for them. I never want to look to them to make a life for me. Being a spectator, even of your beloved kids, is no way to go through life.


Who Do I See 50 Shades With?

I succumbed. I read 50 Shades of Gray. I wrapped a Jane Austin book jacket around it and brought it on a trip with my husband. Evidenced by the popularity of the trilogy and the anticipation of the movie, E.L. James is a genius. She’s no Hemingway, and her gross overuse of “my inner goddess” started getting to me a couple chapters in, but in many ways she nailed it. Women were clearly aching for something to arouse their senses and spark their fantasies, and they found it in the far fetched, corny and relatively mild S&M between a millionaire and his virginal, naive apprentice.

I had mixed emotions while reading it. I was embarrassed to be engaged in such a trashy novel, and at the same time, how do I say this … really turned on? My husband has James to thank for a particularly fun weekend. Now, the movie is coming out. I saw the trailer. It won’t be winning any Oscars, but I bet it will be hot. I’ll again be embarrassed and probably, unavoidably randy, turning my own 50 shades of red.

So, the question is, who do I see it with? Do I see it with my husband and run the risk of making a scene? Do I see it with my girlfriends and end up giggling like a school girl? Do I see it by myself? If I do that, do I need to buy a vibrator?

Who are you going to see it with?

The first date I ever went on with my husband was to see White Men Can’t Jump. There is a scene where Woody Harrelson’s character puts a jar of money in his girlfriend’s crotch and says something like, “Stay right there, I’m going to put my mouth where the money is.” I thought I would die. That was really risque for me, and I’ve not matured much since. Sex scenes, even with the man I married 16 years ago, still make me wonder what the heck to do with my hands. So, I don’t think I can see it with my husband, at least not if I’m sober.

A lot of my friends read the book. We could go together, but just the thought of that is making me uncomfortable. It might be like watching porn with a bunch of women. Weird. Also, probably frustratingly unsatisfying.

I could go solo, I know someone who is doing that, but she is lucky enough to be vacationing in a distant city when it premieres. She won’t run the risk of bumping into someone she knows, who would surely spread the word she is a closet pervert.

Shooooot! I have no more options but to wait for it On Demand, so I can watch it in the comfort and privacy of my own home. I’m hoping lots of you feel just like me, and it fails miserably in the theaters and hits my TV really soon. Until then, my inner goddess will just have to wait.


Mimic a 5 Year Old for a Much Better Day

I was the guest reader at my sons’ preschool class yesterday. Before I shared my book, (Are You a Horse?) the kids had circle time. Their teacher, Mrs. Kane, went around the room and asked each of them to introduce the student sitting next to them. They are working on last names, which in and of itself is incredibly funny and adorable. Then she said, “How are you today?” Each child, on their own turn, answered with an exuberant and genuinely positive answer. The responses ranged from “Great!” to “Fabulous!” Their zeal was contagious. After I finished my book, I almost skipped back out onto the street.

Then, I bumped into a few adults. I politely asked this same question, “Hi. How are you doing?” Not one person had a positive response, the most enthusiastic was, “Fine, thanks.” Other responses were “Cold”, “Busy”, “You know” and “Could be better.” What’s happened to us? “Busy,” as our current state of being, is sad. “Cold” is obvious here in the northeast, and “You know” assumes I am a mind reader.

I do understand. We are cold and busy. We could always be better. I currently have a huge leak in my kitchen ceiling and a smashed up car in my driveway. My five year olds don’t have to deal with these things, so I guess it is easy for them to be, “AWESOME!” Adults do have to deal with these things, but we have a choice as to what attitude to adopt each morning. Studies show positive people are not only happier, they are healthier. The Twitter study released recently is a great example. You can teach yourself to be less negative.

Challenge yourself to smile and give a positive response next time someone says, “How are you?” The fact is, they are probably too busy to really care, but happiness is contagious. Brighten both your own day and someone else’s by saying, “I’m amazing! Thank you so much for asking!” You will be surprised how just saying these words out loud can change your perspective. Have a marvelous day!

Optimism is a happiness magnet. If you stay positive, good things and good people will be drawn to you.
— Mary Lou Retton


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